Real Chaos Astrology, Vol. 6: Double Your Fun
In Roman mythology, Janus is the two-faced god of the year’s turning, looking both backward into the past and forward into the future. In astrology, you have to wait until late spring for Gemini, the two-faced sign with two bodies to go with it. Gemini is ruled by Mercury (that famous Roman messenger with his winged feet, zipping around and spying on everybody and making all the other gods seem unbearably slow and bovine), and sometimes you will swear that there are more than two of each member of this sign.
It’s not just that they manage to maintain conflicting positions, opinions, occupations, and relationships. It’s also that they manage to slip out of your grasp just when you were sure you had them, like Quicksilver (natch) in the X-Men having a heyday at the Pentagon. Watch the video. That is Gemini.
It’s not that they’re that fast; it’s that time moves differently for them than for the rest of us, and at their best, they can control it. Gemini at their quickest can quantum leap through life, experiencing the entire human gamut of emotions and experiences in an hour and — this part is key — accruing all the concomitant wisdom. Gemini at their worst can spend twenty-five years reliving, ad nauseam, the same stupid moment and — sadly also key — learn absolutely nothing from it. And every Gemini I know has done both of these things with almost dizzying celerity, often breaking hearts and laws of physics and usually marrying the wrong person at least twice along the way.
The great twentieth-century poet Robert Creeley was a Gemini, and his “Prayer to Hermes” evinces the dichotomy of the sign: “and I am / sore afflicted with / the devil’s doubles, / the twos, of this / half-life, / this twilight.” To be Gemini is to be multiple and to live in the shadowy place between, as the poem continues, “Neither one nor two / but a mixture / walks here / in me — ” and all the greatest Geminis have found ways to make us see this (not just Creeley, but Nikki Giovanni, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Ian Fleming were Geminis. Bob Dylan is a Gemini. Marilyn Monroe was a Gemini. Prince was a Gemini).
Of course, Geminis can also be misguided, like Johnny Depp getting that erstwhile pledge of love transformed into a risible “WINO FOREVER” tattoo on his arm, or Angelina Jolie doing, well, just about everything she did with Billy Bob Thornton (oh, the vials of blood! Oh, the ill-advised ink! Confidential to Gemini: that tattoo idea you have is probably a bad one, and yes, we know you aren’t listening), or like Kanye and the current U.S. “head of state” tweeting basically every single tweet, ever. The famous Gemini brashness can manifest as rashness, stupidity, superficiality, and a massive, massive, massive egotism supernova that can leave those of us whose feet repose on a place called Earth with an urge to punch them in the face and/or flee. It happens.
This is the curse of Gemini: they are always double. They can wield that quicksilver nature for brilliance or for… two a.m. tweets attempting to sound arch and just sounding confused while coining neologisms like… “covfefe.”
Yeah. Sometimes Gemini opens its mouth and says UNBELIEVABLE BRILLIANCE (like when Prince says everything Prince ever said) and sometimes Gemini opens its mouth and says THE VERIEST BULLSHIT (see previous paragraph). They can’t help it. It is their nature. (But you might want to reconsider putting them in positions of power.) And the duality of Gemini is nowhere more clear that in their twin capacities for both objectivity and intimacy, for, as the image of Castor and Pollux that represents them, both immortal and mortal. For the Twins, then, here are two books that embody this duality, the necessity of its polarity and the impossibility of blurring these two moments into one.
Vi Khi Nao’s new book, Sheep Machine (Black Sun Lit, 2018) takes us transcendently into the realm of the former, where objectivity becomes an dive into the ocean of our own nature, a “grace said at the ontological last supper,” as the cover claims, and it is not wrong. These prose poems, arranged by the timestamps of Leslie Thornton’s eponymous 2011 film, turn the ekphrastic first toward subjective whimsy — “The grass consecrates, bending to the ventriloqual wind” — and a reification of the authorial gaze — “I am a backdrop against another backdrop.” Its sober tone is both mesmerizing and soothing. Yet, Nao immediately pulls the reader into the fantastic “Cloud gods or monkeys are born from the green pasture of the mountainside,” decorously attributing it not to the poet’s own imagination but to the alchemy Thornton’s video works: “We know appearance isn’t deceiving. We know mountains can become medium-size primates and generally mischievous.”
Nao’s tidy narratives draw the reader into vulnerable subjectivity, placing us in space in a way that feels exhilaratingly dangerous and yet dispassionate, preserving its distance from the image, minutely aware of the reader/viewer. “Between whole-heartedly and half-heartedly,” neither inviting nor repelling but cataloguing the reader’s immersion in the image, “the stillness, the airlift, the parallel-ness of cable wires. To dangle.” Like Gemini, Nao’s text manages to make its detachment gentle enough to seem kind, and yet the voice remains detached, objective, merciless, uninvolved with the plights of the objects it records. It ranges in tone from what seems like academic discursion (“To believe in the rhythm of chaos, the observer must examine the politics of shades and shadows.
In particular, the shadows between two standing female/male nude animals influenced by the book title of Carol Ann Duffy’s work as their stillness speaks diurnal verbatim of light”) to candid blurts (“The sheep on the left is fat!”), remaining congruent in its unwillingness to become partisan, in the impersonal curiosity that causes us to follow it no matter how daunting or disarming a face it shows. Nao’s language is inventive, ingenious, ingenuous, imbued with metaphor, agile and flashing or transparently matter-of-fact: “the hands of humans are crawling behind like minnows,” and the images she unfolds for us become live things, become algorithm, become keys to an understanding of what we are doing here that we cannot help wanting to upend and drink down, seeing, as Nao does, inviting us to see that “life is made ordinary and extraordinary by these common events taken out of context, frame by frame.” But do not be fooled by the author’s humility. What purports to be reportage turns out to be reflection/refraction, like Thornton’s project, exploding the image into something intricate and new, and, like Gemini at its most brilliant, no sooner finished but the book begs to be read again.
If Vi Khi Nao’s Sheep Machine shows us Gemini in all its eternal mathematics of beauty (a beauty of pitiless details and incongruous similes), Hillary Gravendyk’s posthumous collection The Soluble Hour (Omnidawn, 2017) takes into the space of the specific, the intimate, and the mortal in a way that reminds us of the beauty of the ephemeral, the limited, and the personal. Many of these poems, excavated from the author’s dropbox by her friend and collaborator Cynthia Arrieu-King, read like love letters. All of them, as the title suggests, seem to, as Arrieu-King writes in the introduction, “transmit this spark of elemental intimacy” — and to cause us to watch it go out, like a thousand fireflies fading, all at once, in a summer evening.
The Soluble Hour’s voice is, like Sheep Machine’s, clear-eyed and confidential, but there the similarity ends. Here we have Gemini’s more vulnerable face, intimate, fleeting, fragile, tender, like the mortal Castor falling before his grief-stricken twin. Gravendyk had long been living with the constant threat of terminal illness when this parcel of poems was written, and her voice seems less analytical than in the previous collection, Harm (also from Omnidawn).
Here, her considerable powers of empathic wisdom and her gift for juicy and beautiful language exist to address the reader as if they were one of her loved ones, to whom some of these pieces were in fact written. Here, we have bouquets of words that melt, beg to be rolled over and over like chocolate-covered cherries, on the tongue, as in the eponymous poem: “Pocket garden of eden, peach-mad, plum-ridden, tampered: / a dress peeled away like a tulip blade…” as well as a stark and plangent awareness of the limits of hope and span, as in “Amazonite”: “You cast / a handful of shadow…” Gravendyk’s quiet lyrics are full of you- and I-ness, like the space between two bodies who have lately embraced, and who are glimpsed in the moment before contact is lost, or before it can be found again. These poems, unedited by their compilers, are about nothing but love seen from the remove of a second that threatens to yawn into longer: “You feed me need and I open my mouth to receive it.” Who has not gratefully swallowed lack, given by the beloved?
The Soluble Hour promises to dissolve, but is not gone yet, playing in orchards and touches of hands, evoking the forests and seas of the Pacific Northwest (Gravendyk grew up in Washington State): “woods threaded with smoke” become “sky mist furling through needles.” Gravendyk’s “we” moves through this landscape with acute awareness of every tiny thing that makes it, shell or driftwood, imbuing language with the pungency and color: “these rocks / dried sea / charcoal blue / if we lifted…” And, though some of this work is slight, so much of it is powerful, marrying trees to tendons and sea to grief “the still heart / of fullness, the steady drop/ of a beating tree” that it is impossible not to yearn, as Gravendyk must have, for another chance at spring, “a cherry tree about / to break into blossom…as / my body would do if I could make it,” impossible not to melt into the knowledge that, as “Fairy Tale” reminds us, “Loss always has time for you, if you wait.”
The gift of the twins is the refusal to be singular, the refusal to choose, as Creeley’s poem concludes, to “stand / still or be here / elemental, be more / or less a man, / a woman.” Gemini’s power is in its we, in its insistence on plurality, and in its ability to know that the measure of love or grief exists outside of time, to understand, as Gravendyk writes, “…some called it courage /what felt like blindness,” or again, as Nao reminds us, “So much takes place in one threshold of time.”
Happy Birthday, Gemini. Call it courage. Open your eyes.